Blightyvision: “Casanova”

Or: “David Tennant Fangirl Catnip”

Written and created by Russell T. Davies
Starring David Tennant, Peter O’Toole, Laura Fraser, and Nina Sosanya

If you want a strong script from RTD, you need only do two things: take away his aliens, and let him write about sex.  If you want a strong performance from David Tennant, make sure he doesn’t have to share the screen.  And believe me, gentle reader, I make these statements with no malice whatsoever.  These are two painfully talented gentlemen who need very specific sorts of arenas to really shine, and the 2005 miniseries “Casanova” is just that.

The story, based very loosely indeed upon the life and legend of history’s most famous lover, is framed by a performance from another painfully talented gentleman, Peter O’Toole.  O’Toole plays an elderly Giacomo Casanova, finishing out his life alone as a hermitic librarian.  The curiosity of a young parlormaid (Rose Byrne) coaxes an elaborate retelling of his life story out of him.  In it, young Giacomo skyrockets up through Venetian society by becoming a scholar and expert in all possible areas — from law to astrology — finally meeting the lovely Henriette (Laura Fraser) at the peak of his fame.  Despite their instant attraction and his obvious charm and ambition, Henriette chooses to marry for money and security, leading Giacomo to do all that he can to win her over.

In the midst of his attempts at chasing true love, though, he becomes embroiled in all the sorts of bawdy misadventures you’d expect.  Of particular note is his relationship with the castrato Bellino (played with a sort of snarky charm by Nina Sosanya), which is far more convoluted than it sounds, and surprising even to Giacomo himself.  As the miniseries goes on, though, things grow more and more complicated and edge from whimsical towards dramatic.  Fortunately, the shift is handled skillfully enough that, while abrupt and noticeable, it doesn’t ruin the feel or flow of the story.

Much like “Robin Hood” as reviewed a few weeks ago, historical accuracy is the last thing “Casanova” aims for.  Rather, it chooses to translate different modes of dress and manner into terms that a modern audience is more likely to understand.  For example, we know all too well that the elite of pre-revolutionary France did not dress particularly “punk rock,” but the costume design lends to our eye how their contemporaries would have observed them.  There’s also the occasional harmless anachronistic joke: for example, while it’s true historically that Casanova did urge Louis XV to create what later became the Loterie Nationale, he likely didn’t have a lot to do with modern marketing thereof.

By its end, “Casanova” becomes a true tearjerker as we watch a second generation grow up behind the main characters’, forcing what often becomes unpleasant hindsight.  But it never truly becomes maudlin so much as thought-provoking, and we see more character growth in this short subject than many full-length series accomplish. Everything ends up coming full-circle rather neatly, with a three-Kleenex ending.  So if you’re hoping for the whole to be an “upper” based on how it begins, you’ll likely be rather befuddled when things start to hit the fan.

There isn’t any truly weak performer in this piece.  Tennant is in his ideal role: he can chew scenery, fill the screen, and rule the show as much as he likes, leading an ensemble cast behind him.  While Fraser does an excellent job as Henriette, however, Sosanya steals the show with Bellino’s … well, you’ll have to find out that plot point for yourself.  And Rupert Penry-Jones holds up well in the always-unforgiving role of Man In Love Interest’s Life Who Isn’t Our Hero.  That said, the real prize of the show is O’Toole, even in his limited screen time, both narrating and translating the series’s depiction of Casanova into that of an older, wiser man looking backwards.

Oh, right, and there’s sex.  Lots of sex.  Quite a great deal of sex, actually.  Not pornographic, but definitely post-watershed.  So this probably isn’t one to show the younger of the Tennie fangirls in your life.  Or any easily-shocked family members.  Beyond that?  Knock yourself out.

“Casanova” is available on Region 1 DVD. Not recommended for those under the age of 18, as it features naked David Tennant covered by strategically placed sheets, and naked nuns covered by strategically placed naked David Tennant.

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